The season has started and games have been played by all Conference USA teams. Results have varied but it’s early. Teams are just getting warmed up. So, early glimpses only give us a possible hint of the final outcome.
That stated, here are early season predictions for a conference that has waved goodbye to longtime friends Houston, SMU, Memphis, and Central Florida, and added eight new teams to an already solid nucleus of basketball programs.
Those pre-existing members are Rice, UTEP, Southern Miss, Tulane, UAB, Tulsa, East Carolina, and Marshall. The new eightare FAU, FIU, Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, and UT San Antonio, or UTSA. The addition of the new eight to the pre-existing nucleus makes C-USA the largest NCAA member Conference. The ACC follows with 15 members.
C-USA teams will experience swift turnaround times in conference play from night-to-night because each will be a quick study. C-USA coaches will not get an opportunity for a replay in most instances. In fact, they will only get one.
For example, the only team head coach Jerod Hasse and UAB will play twice during the regular season is Kermit Davis and Middle Tennessee State. Louisiana Tech and Michael White is the only program in which Rice and Ben Braun will tip it against twice.
So, how well can you get to know these teams? It’s given that these coaches know each other personally and most likely have attempted to recruit a good number of the same players. But, how each team will play from night-to-night creates the unknown and most coaches hate the unknown.
HIGHLIGHT PASS OR TURNOVER
The first question we will attempt to answer is which team actually has a chance of winning the conference. The second more difficult question in most cases is which player or players will make the difference for their teams, and the last is which coach will get his guys successfully through what could be anticipated as one of the most grueling seasons in college basketball.
Now that we’ve established the questions to answer, it’s time to sit on the hot seat and make those projections. Hopefully most will be highlight passes instead of turnovers.
UAB, coached by former Kansas sharp shooter Jerod Haase, has a chance to finish atop C-USA. But, so does UTEP, and Southern Miss.
However, UAB returns 4-of-5 starters from last season’s team and the Blazers are hungry. They’re 3-0 after Thursday night’s win over the Troy Trojans.
The Blazers have a solid front line with 6-foot-10 Fahro Alihodzic. Six-foot-8 junior forward C.J. Washington is currently leading the team in scoring with a 20 points per game average in the first three games. Six-foot-6 junior forward and fan favorite Jordan Swing is dynamic with the ball in his hands and will be counted on to step up as the leader. He’s averaging 8.3 points per game.
Rod Rucker and Chad Frazier close out the starting five at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4, respectively, and both are averaging double figures. Needless to say, the Blazers have one of the largest backcourts in the conference.
But, have you seen UTEP? If you want to see physically imposing and athletic, look no further than the Miners coached by Hattiesburg, Miss. native Tim Floyd. The Miners are 1-0 after an 84-49 blowout win over Loyola of New Orleans last Saturday.
However, as Floyd indicated in our first CSS preview, it will depend on whether or not he gets the guard play he’s expecting. But the lineup, even with point-guard uncertainty, is still impressive.
Floyd has penciled in 6-foot-11 senior John Bohannon in the post while 7-foot-1 freshman Matt Williams is the starting center. McKenzie Moore and Jalen Ragland man the forward and off-guard positions respectively at 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-7, respectively. The short guy in that lineup is 6-foot-1 inch junior point guard, C.J. Cooper. If UTEP plays to its potential, the Miners could be the 2013-14 C-USA champions.
Southern Mississippi has a good shot at third, or as Tyndall speculated in our earlier preview, fourth. Maybe he was giving his squad a goal to reach.
The Golden Eagles have the experience in the backcourt with senior guards Neil Watson and Jerold Brooks. Watson averaged 9.8 points per game while Brooks added 10.9 during the 2012-13 season and were a big reason for the 27-10 finish and trip to the NIT.
It was Southern Miss who lost 91-79 in double overtime to the departed Memphis Tigers in last season’s C-USA championship game. The Golden Eagles are missing two key players in Dwayne Davis and Jonathan Mills.
However, 6-foot-7 senior forward Daveon Boardingham returns with Brooks and Watson. Along with an experienced group of role players, the Golden Eagles will be formidable and have already made a statement with wins over Jackson State and DePaul.
Look out for Louisiana Tech if it brings the same type of fervor to C-USA as it played with while a member of the WAC. Head Coach Michael White and his Bulldogs engineered an 18-game winning streak, the second longest in NCAA Division I basketball. As a result, Louisiana Tech found itself ranked in the AP Top-25 for the first time in 28 years after a 27-7 overall, 16-2 conference record.
The Bulldogs also won each of their 14 home games. Summing it up, the advantage for White is that not much of the roster has changed, which will be huge entering a new conference.
Middle Tennessee could be the wild card. Extremely talented, and coached by Sun Belt Coach of the Year, Kermit Davis, his team has a shot to finish top four or five, albeit in a new conference. The Blue Raiders are physical and experienced. Davis’ teams have beaten UCLA and Tennessee and he’s beaten Ole Miss twice. They are starting 2013 at 2-0 after Wednesday night’s 77-70 win over North Florida, which also signified their 30th-consecutive home victory. Finishing fourth in a new conference is reasonable.
The fifth place finisher is up for grabs as Marshall and East Carolina are teams with lots of talent. The key to success will be whether or not these teams develop chemistry early enough in the season to make runs late in the season.
Herd head coach Tom Herrion lost four really talented frontcourt players to graduation who will be difficult to replace after an overall finish of 13-19 during 2012-13.
So far this season, they’ve beaten South Carolina State and Rio Grande Valley. Six-foot-9 senior forward Elijah Pittman is the leading scorer with 30 points per game and, by the way, he will finish as the MVP of the league. Pittman is getting help from redshirt freshman guard Kareem Canty who’s averaging eight assists and 16 points per game, and redshirt freshman forward Ryan Taylor is averaging 9.5 rebounds and 16.5 points per game.
East Carolina is 3-0 so far under fourth-year head coach Jeff Lebo, who played for legendary head coach Dean Smith at North Carolina. So he knows how to win and has done so with 56 wins in his first three seasons at East Carolina. But, how will that translate to the new C-USA?
Lebo’s team finished 23-12 overall, but 9-7 in conference play in 2012. However, four of his top players have graduated meaning Lebo will need to cultivate a new nucleus of players. While he has good freshman talent including Brandon Stith, son of former NBA star Bryant Stith, finishing fifth in a league of so many unknowns with 16 teams might be asking a lot.
STANDS A CHANCE TO SURPRISE
Florida International is banned from postseason play during the 2013-14 season for failing to meet the NCAA Academic Progress Rate minimum score of 900 during the 2011-12 season. But, this team could give its fan base something to cheer about.
The Panthers are coached by Anthony Evans, former boss of MEAC Champion Norfolk State. This team bears watching as Evans will build from the ground up using the same strategy used to transition the Spartans into a winning program.
Keep your eyes on Tulane. After three years of figuring it out, fourth-year head coach Ed Conroy seems to have figured out the key to success for the Green Wave after securing the institutions' first 20-win season since the 1999-2000 season.
However, they will need to show improvement in conference and road play as they finished 6-10 and 3-10, respectively. It might be a difficult task this season as Tulane’s roster is dominated by eight freshmen. Three seniors, two juniors, and two sophomores round out the roster.
OVERCOMING THE ODDS
Any team at any time can get hot and make a run to the conference championship. The college basketball cards have to fall into place for these teams to have a chance. However, they should not be counted out, especially with the pedigree of coaches in charge.
That is where we find Tulsa head coach, and former NBA and Kansas Jayhawk star, Danny Manning, who coached his Golden Hurricane to a 17-16 finish with an 8-8 conference mark in his first season. Expect much improvement in his second season.
Ben Braun and his Rice Owls look to finish much better than the 5-16 blot from last season. The Owls have split their first two games this season.
Braun has three players averaging in double figures. Sophomore 5-foot-9 point guard Max Guercy averages 13 points per game. Six-foot-3 freshman guard Marcus Jackson follows with 12 points per game and is 45 percent from the three-point arc on 5-of-12 shooting. Senior guard Austin Ramljak brings up the rear with 10.5 points per game.
Old Dominion finished 5-25 last season. Twenty-one year coaching veteran Jeff Jones started his first season at ODU with a split of the first two games. He came from American University where he compiled a 212-182 record over the past 13 years. His record at the University of Virginia prior to the move to American was 146-104. Two of his Virginia teams reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16.
Like Old Dominion, Florida Atlantic also sports a championship coach in Mike Jarvis Sr. Along with his son, Mike Jarvis Jr., the Owls look to turn a14-18 team a season ago into a conference competitor. The 25-year-plus coaching veteran has also taken teams to postseason play which includes an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance.
North Texas expects to be better than its 12-20 record from a season ago under second-year head coach Tony Bedford. This could be one of the best defensive teams in the new league. While it is transitioning from the Sun Belt, North Texas broke the school record with 153 blocked shots a year ago. In addition, their three-point defensive field-goal percentage was the lowest in the Sun Belt at 44.3 percent.
Finally, the UTSA Roadrunners have a bit of a hill to climb after finishing 10-22, 3-14 in the WAC. Rekindling the magic of winning will be the challenge for eighth-year head coach Brooks Thompson. His teams finished 18-14, 10-6 in 2011-12 and 20-14, 9-7 in 2010-11.